As a marriage therapist who helps couples avoid unnecessary divorce, I find it reassuring that the divorce rate in our county has stabilized. But there’s a notable exception: Divorce is on the rise among people age 50 and older who have been married for 20 to 30 years.
According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the US Census Bureau, the number of married couples in their 50s who call it quits has doubled since the 1990s. Among couples age 65 and older, divorces have tripled since 1990. This trend to divorce later in life even has a name—the gray divorce. Here’s what you can do to save your marriage…
WHY DIVORCE NOW?
There are many reasons why long-term marriages are breaking up…
• Kids leaving home. When children still are home, people who are unhappily married often choose to put aside their own unhappiness, fearing that divorce will negatively impact their children. They opt to make the best of the situation until the kids are launched. Divorces are common when the youngest child leaves home.
• Feeling disconnected. The early stages of marriage typically are characterized by feelings of strong physical attraction and infatuation. But over time, this mutual love affair wanes. Spouses start leading separate lives. They focus on their careers, children, extended family, friends, hobbies and other commitments…anything but each other. Eventually, loneliness and emotional disconnection set in.
• Remarriage. Older people often are in second or third marriages—which, overall, have significantly higher rates of divorce than first marriages. Stressors arising from complicated stepfamily dynamics, challenging ex-spouses and overwhelming financial responsibilities often are at the root of why these marriages end.
• Increased life expectancy. It’s not uncommon for people in their 50s or 60s to live another 20 to 30 years. Many seniors are wondering whether they really want to spend what remains of their lives with their current partners—and finding that the answer is no.
• In search of more energetic partners. If two partners have decidedly different levels of energy or ability or interest in engaging in activities requiring vitality—such as sex, athletics or active hobbies—the more vibrant spouse might desire a more active partner.
• Focusing on oneself. Some people complain that during the course of their marriages, their own needs have taken a backseat to caretaking for others—spouses, children, parents and in-laws. Believing that “time is running out,” there is a growing sense of urgency to nurture oneself instead. Divorce is viewed as an opportunity to redefine and refocus one’s life.
REASONS NOT TO GET A GRAY DIVORCE
Although the idea of getting a new lease on life might be appealing, there are good reasons to be cautious about ending a marriage later in life.
In their quiet moments, many people who divorce later in life—even those who are happily divorced—express sadness about not being able to reminisce together about good times, share family holidays and other important events, or even rejoice in grandchildren together.
Furthermore, the idea that older children aren’t affected by their parents’ divorces simply isn’t true. Research suggests that children of all ages—even adult children—often struggle tremendously when their parents divorce. They wonder, Isn’t anything permanent in life? They worry about the viability of their own marriages.
Because mature adult children are believed to be emotionally equipped to deal with the challenges of divorce, parents often openly discuss details about their failing marriages, leaving their children feeling caught in the middle.
Although some gray divorcees yearn for the solitude that single life has to offer, others fantasize about finding new, more compatible partners with whom they can create healthier, more loving relationships. But “gray dating” isn’t necessarily easy. Becoming single again after many years of marriage has its challenges.
Finally, because many gray divorcees are retired—or close to it—they may be living on fixed incomes that don’t go nearly as far when split between two independent people as when shared by a couple. This can diminish the quality of life and create financial worries.
HOW TO PREVENT A GRAY DIVORCE
Some older couples think, We’ve made it this far…we don’t need to do anything different now. But if your marriage still is strong and you don’t want to wake up one morning thinking, We have nothing in common anymore, you have to make your marriage your number-one priority.
Your marriage should take precedence over kids, careers, hobbies, extended family and any other commitments. This means spending regular time together as a couple and checking in with each other daily. Also…
• Break out of communication ruts. Couples who have been together a long time can get stuck in ineffective ways of communicating. If you’re upset about something in your relationship but avoid discussing it or find conversations about it to be nonproductive or hurtful, over time it will destroy your feelings of love for your partner.
Although all marriages have their ups and downs, when resentment, hurt and anger are ever-present, it is essential to address and resolve underlying issues. If communication problems are at the root of destructive interactions, it’s easy to think that you’re both so set in your ways after being married for so long that change isn’t possible. But this simply isn’t true. When motivated, people can make life-altering changes that profoundly improve the quality of relationships.
Learning new relationship skills is one way to achieve these fundamental changes. Marriage-education classes offered by mental health professionals, religious organizations and universities can be extremely helpful. Simply Google “marriage education” in your area to find a local class. Also, self-help books outlining how to have successful relationships can be useful.
• Don’t give up on compliments. Science tells us that our brains have a negativity bias—that is, we’re most likely to notice things that are problematic. Although this vigilance serves us in terms of survival, it’s extremely detrimental in marriage. Constantly focusing on what your spouse does wrong creates resentment, anger and hurt, which in turn leads to emotional distance.
Instead, couples in healthy relationships focus most on what their spouses do right. They are diligent about expressing appreciation and gratitude. Older couples sometimes stop giving each other compliments in the mistaken belief that they’re not necessary. But making a habit of complimenting your spouse a few times a day is a powerful way to build goodwill and friendship—an important foundation for a lasting marriage.
• Keep it sexy. Reaching midlife does not mean giving up on staying fit and having a satisfying sexual relationship. In fact, many couples in their 50s and 60s (and beyond) report having active sex lives. As people age, however, what they find sexually arousing changes. What “worked” in their 20s may be quite different from what “works” in their 50s or 60s. That’s why ongoing open communication about sexual preferences is imperative.
Often one spouse is more interested in sex than the other. In itself, this is not a problem—as long as the couple finds a way to bridge this desire gap so that they both can be happy. When the lower-desire spouse consistently rejects his/her partner’s sexual advances, it causes deep resentment, hurt and, eventually, anger. For the lower-desire spouse, anger is a big turnoff, making sex even less likely. For more on how to address this, read my article “When a Spouse Doesn’t Want to Have Sex.”
• Break the routine. Older couples can get stuck in routines. But happily married couples continually reinvent themselves. They are creative. They have a passion for breaking out of the mold. Novelty keeps relationships fresh…and that freshness keeps people interested.
What to do: Do some of the things your spouse loves to do even if you’re not crazy about those things. Experiment with new hobbies that you can do together. Travel to new places. Try new kinds of recipes and restaurants. Even if you have two left feet, take a dance class together. Having more time available in later life makes engaging in new activities more feasible.
• Get help. If you’ve tried the steps in this article and still are thinking of getting a divorce, seek qualified professional help. Look for a therapist who specializes in marriage therapy and understands the issues you are facing as you age. The website of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT.org) offers a helpful “therapist locator” tool.